It has been frustrating to watch people and businesses condemn Rolling Stone magazine — where, to be clear, I personally have no editorial affiliations — for putting the Boston bombing suspect, Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, on the cover of the latest issue. Many are upset that Tsarnaev is on the cover at all, as well as with the “rock star”-style photo the magazine used. And some who have read the article by journalist Janet Reitman complain that the way Jahar is profiled makes him out to be a “victim.”
I support Rolling Stone putting Tsarnaev on the cover and thought Reitman’s article was extremely well-written and thought-provoking. I came away from reading it with a greater understanding of how a 19-year-old Cambridge kid became a “monster.” To me, the patriarchy was clearly a problem in this family. To be clear, patriarchy doesn’t just mean when men are in positions of authority over women; it means when men, or one man, are in positions of authority over other men as well. It assumes that the people underneath that man will fall in line and not ask questions; it breeds a lack of agency and even, I would argue in Jahar’s case, weakness in a person. He was an immigrant from a maligned religion who slowly became radicalized by his severe older brother at the exact same time his troubled parents deserted him to move back to their homeland. I would not call him a “victim,” but I do believe it was a shitty, difficult situation for a teenager to handle, and those circumstances contributed to the vile crime he, allegedly, committed.
It’s lazy to blame Islam for terrorists (or in this case, alleged terrorists) like Tamerlan and Jahar Tsarnaev. That’s exactly the kind of intellectual simple-mindedness that the Tsarneav brothers complained to their non-Muslim friends about, to the extent that they discussed their religion with outsiders at all. But the problem with the Tsarnaevs wasn’t Islam. The problem was their unquestioning belief in patriarchal attitudes, despite the fact that their “leader” — in this case, Tamerlan — was luring them both over the edge of a cliff. The Rolling Stone article makes it clear that the Tsarnaev family, who are originally from Kyrgyzstan and Chechnya, was conservative and patriarchal in nature. “Chechen families are very traditional,” according to Rolling Stone. It isn’t acceptable for women to wear pants or to date outside of the culture, a friend of the Tsarnaev family explained. The Washington Post further adds, “Chechen women generally wear head scarves and eschew pants and short skirts. They avoid being seen with men other than relatives, and they are expected not to look a man in the eyes.” But not the Tsarnaev’s mother Zubeidat, at first. Upon moving to the U.S., Zubeidat became more assimilated into American culture by wearing makeup, pants and high heels. A friend described her as once being “very modern.” Her husband, Jahar’s father Anzor, who had suffered abuse back in Kyrgyzstan and was ill in adulthood, was described by neighbors as a “miserable guy.” But it was the elder son, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died in the days of drama following the Boston bombing, who seemed to have the most influence on Jahar.
Rolling Stone described how, as the eldest son, Tamerlan was considered more important than just a big brother, but as almost the head of the family. Said a friend of the Tsarnaev’s: “[Tamerlan] was the biggest deal in the family. In a way, he was like the father. Whatever he said, they had to do.” Of course, plenty of people have older brothers they look up to and religious upbringings and they don’t become terrorists. But in the Tsanreav family, it seems like there was a unique combination of machismo, hero worship, alleged mental illness, and denial. He was a tough guy who wouldn’t let any weakness show through his macho exterior and would sometimes eschew protective gear while boxing. He was a loner who was called “cocky,” “arrogant” and “disdainful” by his peers. He was a decently attractive young man who couldn’t find a date to prom. He was a domestic abuser who was arrested and charged with slapping a girlfriend. He was a guy who once complained to his mother that he felt like he had “two people living inside him.” He was a follower of Islamn who nevertheless picked fights with others at the mosque. He was an Internet conspiracy theorist. He was a guy who a family friend suggested (to Zubeidat Tsarnaev) should see a doctor because he might have a mental illness. “If I said ‘psychiatrist,’ she’d just flip,” the friend told RS. It’s not clear if he ever did. I’m guessing not.
Instead Tamerlan plunged himself into a strict adherence to Islam. No more boxing despite the fact he had once held Olympic dreams, no more drinking, no more drugs, no more girls, and suddenly he was praying five times a day. His mother, who had become worried about his aimlessness, supported his religious fervor. In fact, she became a bit zealous herself: Zubeidat stopped serving male clients at the Boston-area spa where she worked and began covering herself. Which in and of itself is fine, of course, but she is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as justifying her choice by saying to her husband Anzor, “This is what Islamic men should want. This is what I am supposed to do.” Anzor Tsarnaev didn’t agree. He eventually filed for divorce, supposedly because he was unhappy about how religious she was becoming, left his family behind in the U.S., and moved back to his homeland. Still in America, Zubeidat was arrested for shoplifting and later followed Anzor back to the homeland. Seemingly the dominant adult in this situation, Tamerlan indoctrinated his younger brother into Islam as well. By the time the Tsarnaev parents had both left the U.S., Jahar was basically in his radicalized older brother’s care.
I already generally knew, in the way you pick up things through osmosis, that one of the reasons young people, especially young men, are drawn to terrorism is for the feeling of solidarity that comes from being part of a movement. In fact, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on the FBI’s watch list for having spent six months in an area bordering Chechnya where he was allegedly becoming more radicalized. The Rolling Stone article really explains how these two young, immigrant men felt marginalized as Muslims in American culture and withdrew further into themselves. Jahar had assimilated socially at first (the article is filled with quotes from his high school friends saying he was just a regular pot-smoking, student athlete teen), but Tamerlan seemed standoffish and isolated and eventually pulled his little brother into that isolation with him. As the younger brother, Jahar really wasn’t in a place to question.
The Tsarnaevs had traditional, patriarchal opinions about women as well, despite the mother’s initial American assimilation. The daughters, it seems, were the forgotten sufferers in the family’s controlling, macho dynamic. To quote RS:
Jahar rarely spoke to his friends about his sisters, Ailina and Bella, who, just a few years older than he, kept to themselves but also had their own struggles. Attractive, dark-haired girls who were “very Americanized,” as friends recalled, they worshipped Tamerlan, whom one sister would later refer to as her ‘hero’ — but they were also subject to his role as family policeman. When Bella was a junior in high school, her father, hearing that she’d been seen in the company of an American boy, pulled her out of school and dispatched Tamerlan to beat the boy up. Friends later spotted Bella wearing a hijab; not long afterward, she disappeared from Cambridge entirely. Some time later, Ailina would similarly vanish. Both girls were reportedly set up in arranged marriages.
That, to me, explains a hell of a lot about this family’s dysfunction: The dad sent the older brother to beat up an American boy for simply talking to their daughter. Talk about entitlement and believing you’re above the law. It’s completely unsurprising, then, that Tamerlan’s wife, a white Protestant woman from Rhode Island, converted to Islam, began covering herself at Tamerlan’s request, and “pulled away” from family and friends. Her roommates were worried that Tamerlan was “manipulative” and “controlling.” You have to wonder if Tamerlan’s wife knew about his domestic violence arrest from his past relationship;. From his sisters to his mother to his wife, in every single relationship that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had, he was dominant.
It has made me a little bit uncomfortable, in retrospect, how the Internet played the family’s machismo for comic effect. After the Tsarnaev brothers’ Uncle Ruslan gave a CNN interview in which he looked about ready to explode his top and called his nephews “losers,” he was turned into a a meme. Gruff, stern Uncle Ruslan saw his face plastered with comments like “If the cops don’t find him, Uncle Ruslan will” and “God forgives, Uncle Ruslan does not.” We giggled, because Uncle Ruslan was shout-y, but the meme gets a little less funny when you think about how maybe this is the way the Tsarvaev family really did treat their kids. Toxic masculinity is part of who they are.
Let me be clear: Jahar Tsarnaev certainly is not a “victim” in nearly the same way as the three people he killed and the 264 he injured. But he also isn’t simply a regular, doofy-haired pot-smoking college student or a one-dimensional monster. He’s a 19-year-old kid who was being pressured and radicalized by his only close family, a domineering and possibly mentally ill older brother whom he was not allowed to question. That, frankly, is sad.
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